Publshed in the Press Democrat on August 23, 1998.
This "online reprint" is from that newspaper's Internet archive at www.pressdemocrat.com


UPHILL BATTLE

PETALUMA'S LAFFERTY RANCH HAS BECOME A FLASH POINT AS PLANNERS SEEK TO EXPAND PUBLIC ACCESS TO PUBLIC LANDS AND BUILD TRAILS THROUGH PRIVATE PROPERTY

Published on August 23, 1998
1998- The Press Democrat

Correction: For the Record published October 1, 1998
Alfred and Maureen Bettman own the parcel below Lafferty Ranch on Sonoma Mountain. The Bettmans granted landowner John Saemann a 1.8-acre lot line adjustment on April 11, 1997, but the rest of the property remains owned by the Bettmans. A graphic on Page A1 and a story on page A14 on Aug. 23 were incorrect.

BYLINE: Chris Coursey
Staff Writer

PAGE: A1

The long-running squabble over access to Lafferty Ranch has expanded from a local issue permeating Petaluma politics into a broader debate that could affect recreational access to public lands throughout Sonoma County, and potentially other parts of the Bay Area.

The 270-acre Lafferty, owned by the city of Petaluma, has emerged as the single largest issue in the 32-month effort to outline outdoor recreation goals for the rest of Sonoma County's 1.02 million public acres.

The county's Outdoor Recreation Plan describes future parks, preserves, river access points, bikeways and some 230 miles of new trails throughout the county.

But members of the committee drafting the plan and observers of the process agree that Lafferty Ranch has loomed larger than any of the many more positive aspects of the plan.

Because of Lafferty, they say:

``Lafferty Ranch is laced through this plan,'' said Howard Moes, a trails advocate who has followed the county's Outdoor Recreation Plan process since its inception in early 1996. ``It was the poison pill that threatened to kill the whole thing.''

That view is shared by several members of the citizens committee that has worked for more than 2-1/2 years on the recreation plan.

``A trail across Sonoma Mountain, connecting the Petaluma Adobe (park) with Jack London (park) by way of Lafferty, was ranked as the top priority in this plan by the people of the county,'' said Caryl Ohrbach, a member of the committee.

``But a majority of our committee voted to take that out because of the threats of Steve Butler and his clients.''

Group of landowners

Butler is a Santa Rosa attorney representing an unknown number of Sonoma Mountain-area landowners. Butler repeatedly has refused to identify his clients, but he does not deny the widely held belief that they include Peter Pfendler, the wealthy Sonoma Mountain rancher whose offer to swap his Moon Ranch for the publicly owned Lafferty sparked the contentious debate that still rages in Petaluma.

In their fight to keep people off Sonoma Mountain, Pfendler and three other landowners, Patricia Cheda and Elizabeth and Roy Elliott, have recorded highly restrictive covenants on their properties that preclude any public access for a period of 40 years.

It is a move that sent a chill through the trails access community, particularly when Butler told the citizens committee on May 6 that more landowners would sign such covenants if the committee refused to remove the Sonoma Mountain trail from its planning maps.

During that meeting, the committee, on a 5-2 vote, removed the trail from its plan.

``The concern was that if there was too much controversy around Sonoma Mountain, the whole plan would fail,'' said Ohrbach, who voted in the minority.

Pfendler and the Elliotts could not be reached to comment on the covenants. But Cheda -- who has fought against public access on Sonoma Mountain for more than a decade -- said the issue is a matter of survival for her 700-acre dairy ranch, which has been in her family for more than 100 years.

``We're trying to protect our land,'' she said. ``I've got nothing against trails, but they don't belong on agricultural land.''

Cheda cited concerns about trespassing, fire and vandalism -subjects that the citizens committee has discussed extensively since its membership was expanded last year to include representatives of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

In response, many protections for agriculture have been built into the draft recreation plan, including several statements that trails will be developed only where landowners are willing to have them.

That's not enough, though, Cheda said.

``It may be on the neighbor's property, but that doesn't keep the people who use it over there,'' she said.

Hiking vision

The Outdoor Recreation Plan outlines a vision in which hikers in Sonoma County would be able to teeter along the ridges of the Mayacamas Range from Sonoma all the way north to the Geysers. Those with an itch for flatter ground could follow a 27-mile Russian River-side route from Healdsburg to the Pacific Ocean. Bikers, hikers and horseback riders could pedal or hoof from Santa Rosa to Bodega Bay.

At an optimistic meeting Aug. 5, the committee approved its final draft of the plan. A series of public meetings will be scheduled this fall for further public comment on the document before it is presented to the Board of Supervisors, probably early next year.

``It's a great plan, other than that one omission,'' said Ohrbach, referring to the Sonoma Mountain issue. ``It's as much as anyone could anticipate over the next 10 years or so.''

But as its supporters strive to highlight the bright points of the plan, Lafferty hangs over it like a dark cloud.

Instead of a cross-mountain trail that includes Lafferty, the latest draft of the recreation plan shows a trail that leaves Petaluma Adobe State Park on Adobe Road, swings south to Highway 116 and then climbs the south flank of Sonoma Mountain to a height of 1,945 feet, more than 500 feet below the summit. The 6.5 miles of the proposed trail that is off of Highway 116 is from an easement offered by the owners of the 1800-acre Triangle G Ranch, who have applied to the county for permission to build 36 homes on the property.

That's not acceptable to trails advocates.

``People want Lafferty put back in -- it's public property,'' Moes said. ``Otherwise, what you have here is a small group of people dictating county park policy. Because of them, the will of the many has been ignored. Because of them, a public property on a public road has been declared off limits in this plan.

``I don't think it's over yet.''

Conflict with agriculture?

Ironically, attorney Butler also predicts a rocky road for the plan, even though he won his fight to have the Lafferty-linked trail removed.

``That was an important goal,'' he said, but attaining it will not make him and his clients step away from the process. ``There's a broader debate here that involves the basic incompatibility of trails and agriculture.''

Butler, who as a deputy county counsel in the late 1980s helped write much of the county's general plan, said the current brouhaha over the Sonoma Mountain trail mirrors a political fight in 1988, when supervisors voted to delete a similar trail from the general plan.

``The supervisors stressed the primacy of agriculture, adopting strict policies of confining urban development and urban services to urban areas,'' Butler said. ``Now we've got a very vocal single-issue constituency out there trying to change that by pushing a network of trails into the hinterlands.''

Supervisor Mike Cale, a strong proponent of agriculture, said he does not see trails and agriculture as ``mutually exclusive.''

``I've never considered trails an urban use,'' he said.

But he said farmers' and ranchers' fears of trespassing, vandalism, fire and other problems associated with trails ``are very real.''

``What it comes down to is if we have willing landowners and we're willing to address those concerns, then I think there is a commitment to provide more public access,'' Cale said.

``To say that trails and agriculture don't mix would not be my interpretation of the general plan, and I don't think it would be the interpretation of the majority of the board.''

Cale said it is important that the outdoor recreation plan stresses protection for agriculture, something that the citizens committee has ``bent over backward'' to do, according to Ken Wells, the coordinator of the Coalition for the Outdoor Recreation Plan, representing two dozen outdoor-oriented organizations.

``There was a series of workshops to address concerns about fire, insurance, trespassing, vandalism,'' Wells said. ``The bottom line is that from experiences on trails in agricultural areas elsewhere, that stuff just doesn't happen.''

Philip Sales, a county Parks Department planner who took over direction of the planning process when a consultant's twoyear contract expired in December, said, ``I think the agricultural community got what it wanted.''

Accommodating concern

The draft plan specifically states that trails cannot be developed in agricultural areas unless the landowners are willing and the impacts of trail use can be mitigated. Judy James, a citizens committee member and employee of the Farm Bureau, said such protections should be sufficient to satisfy her constituency.

``The committee has been very supportive of agriculture's concerns,'' James said. ``We'd still like to see public lands used first, but we're feeling pretty comfortable with the plan at this point.''

Still, Butler predicted continued debate about trails in agricultural areas, not only during the coming public meetings on the outdoor recreation plan, but later this year as the county's Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District begins discussions about using tax money to acquire trail easements.

``The Sonoma Mountain issue is important, but there is still a public debate that needs to happen at a deeper level,'' Butler said. ``In my mind, trails and agriculture cannot go together, at least not with the level of analysis that I've seen thus far.''

That stance worries many trails advocates, who see it as threatening to scuttle attempts to work out solutions with the agricultural community. Particularly concerned are backers of the Bay Area Ridge Trail, who envision a linkage of 400 miles of trails along the ridges that ring the Bay Area.

``We've got about half of the Ridge Trail done, but most of that is on public lands,'' said Clifford Janoff, executive director of the San Francisco-based group. ``From now on we'll be dealing with private landowners.''

Those include landowners on Sonoma Mountain, a key section of the Ridge Trail.

The tactics of the Sonoma Mountain landowners who signed covenants restricting public access to their property are a ``concern,'' but Janoff also called the covenants a ``mistake.''

``These covenants will hurt the landowners in the long run by decreasing potential uses -- and therefore potential value -- of their land,'' he said. ``People have the right to say `no' to trails without having covenants. We run into reluctant landowners all the time. It's our job to deal with that.''

Room for compromise?

``I don't think there needs to be a big loud battle here,'' said Hal Beck, who was appointed to the citizens committee in May.

``There's a significant constituency in this county who would like more opportunities for outdoor recreation. We're talking low-impact, healthy activities that are done by the kind of people that generally don't pose a big threat to the neighborhood.''

He said that while he supports developing a trail over Sonoma Mountain, he also recommended leaving that trail off the planning map.

In a letter to his new colleagues after the May 6 meeting, he wrote that ``attempting to draw lines'' on the map ``will serve to prolong the process of creating the map and do absolutely nothing to create the trails.'' He recommended that time would be better spent seeking out landowners willing to allow trails through their properties.

``I'd say that 75 percent of the arguments in this process have been stirred up by the folks on Sonoma Mountain,'' Beck said in an interview. ``And I think those folks are perfectly willing to keep stirring things up, and to spend some big money doing it.

``So my preference is to go around them (with the trail). There are different ways to skin a cat.''

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PHOTO: 1 color by Jeff Kan Lee/Press Democrat
MAP: 3 color by Sharon Henry
For the Record published October 1, 1998
Alfred and Maureen Bettman own the parcel below Lafferty Ranch on Sonoma Mountain. The Bettmans granted landowner John Saemann a 1.8-acre lot line adjustment on April 11, 1997, but the rest of the property remains owned by the Bettmans. A graphic on Page A1 and a story on page A14 on Aug. 23 were incorrect.
The gate to Lafferty sits on 433 square feet of land under disputed ownership. Petaluma claims to have legal access but a landowner disagrees.